Photo by Jen Siska

[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 19, 2009. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

You’re an experienced and avid open-ocean kayaker, setting off early from your favorite coastal launch for a restorative and invigorating day on the water. You’ve checked with the Weather Channel and the National Weather Service, and both have predicted sunny weather, slight clouds, and virtually no wind. So, after donning some sunblock and checking your gear and supplies, you’re off.

The launching goes OK, but you take on a little water fighting the breakers. When you finally clear them, you paddle steadily until you’re about 1 mile offshore, which you confirm with your GPS. Venturing out a little farther, you paddle parallel to the shore for a few hours. Then, adjusting your life vest and seat cushion to make yourself more comfortable, you stop to relax and enjoy the scenery, but between the warm sunshine, the gentle roll of the ocean, and the hypnotically reflective water, you nod off.

The Challenge

When you wake several hours later, the ocean is choppy and a strong, southerly wind has picked up, which has pushed you at least 3 miles from shore and continues to grow in strength. You dig for your cellphone just in case you need to call for help, only to discover that the saltwater you took on earlier has rendered it useless. You paddle hard for shore, but even after a relentless hour, the winds and currents seem to erase all your progress and the tall beachfront hotels are becoming mere dots on the horizon. You realize more paddling might be fruitless and only exhaust you completely. So what do you do now?

What You Have

Two gallons of fresh drinking water and a basic survival kit with a compass, a lightweight 6×7-foot survival blanket (silvered on one side, dark on the other, in a pouch), heavy-duty nylon tape, and a coil of thin but strong nylon rope. You’ve also got a Swiss Army knife (or similar tool), some marine binoculars, a GPS unit, your waterlogged phone, some basic medical supplies in their own self-contained marine emergency medical kit, and an extra paddle. You also have a lightweight, waterproof windbreaker and some foul-weather gear stashed in the small but useful front storage compartment.

Analysis and Commentary

This challenge had you blown away from shore in a sea kayak, and pressed for a solution to get yourself back to terra firma. Many of you thought this was a no-brainer and hardly worth any creative sweat suggesting “all I have to do is rig a sail and tack my way back to the shore.” Sounds simply, right? Yeah, not so simple really. In fact, extremely tricky to pull off at all. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.

For those entrants who rolled up their sleeves for the challenge, there were three basic approaches. The first was to create as much of an anchor as possible from your excess gear to slow your progress out to sea, try and dry your cell phone to call for assistance, create a signaling device out of the reflective mylar emergency blanket, and hope someone loves — and misses — you enough to send out a search and rescue team to pluck you from the briny deep. In all, a fairly reasonable and practical approach, but one that relies on a lot of ‘ifs’, i.e., if, in fact, anyone would rouse such an effort, if they knew where to start looking, and if you could survive the cold and ocean elements long enough to be found — assuming of course they could find you. So, while doable and perhaps practical, this isn’t exactly a high percentage play, and doesn’t really reflect the Make: can-do spirit we’ve come to so admire in all of you.

The second option many of you went for was to construct a kite out of the emergency blanket or outer-wear and use that to let the wind pull you back to shore. This looks and sounds good on paper, but while it passes the test for clever thinking, the consensus among our experts (oh yeah, we called in some big guns to help us judge this challenge) was that this simply would not work. Effective parasailing kites require not only an air bladder at the leading edge to help maintain the right airfoil shape, but a number of elaborate control lines. Without those elements — which would be virtually impossible to construct in this scenario, any kite you could make would either end up being blown into the water or, at best, act as a spinnaker sail and just pull you in the direction of the wind and — contrary to its intended purpose — further out to sea. Granted, assuming the kite would fly, it might help attract potential rescuers, but considering how far adrift this could take you, that’s a very risky gamble. So, though a creative approach, the kite option is not really likely to improve your situation or ensure your survival.

That brings us to the last and most popular-solution, namely, construct a sail of some sort out of the paddles and emergency blanket and sail your way back to land. And since (as is often the case with these challenges) the devil is in the details, here’s where the apparently simple starts to get complicated. Because converting your kayak into even a passable sailboat, though feasible, is not as straightforward as it seems. Though it wasn’t specified in the challenge, since most sea-going kayaks have small, controllable rudders, we assumed you even had a rudder in place to assist you. But to be effective — especially going windward or ‘upwind’ — a sailboat requires more than just a sail and a rudder.

To wit, a sailboat can make its way upwind by tacking across the wind direction and pulling the sail in tight to form an airfoil. When sails are ‘close-hauled’ this way, the wind pressure on the sail tends to make the boat roll, a force which is counteracted by the weight of a keel or daggerboard, and people sitting on the rail. As with your kayak, the wind also pushes the boat downwind or “leeway,” the force of which is also counteracted by the keel. Without a keel or daggerboard — or, if rigged on the sides, “leeboards”— a small boat attempting to sail windward would just get blown downwind. So those of you who concocted makeshift keels or leeboards should congratulate yourselves because that was a big and not so evident key to tackling this challenge. Now it’s true that maintaining a constant relationship between the set of the sail and the direction of the wind is critical to keeping an effective airfoil with your sail, and hence being able to tack upwind. Given the sails most of you sketched or described, even that would be difficult to manage under the circumstances. But we thought that the few of you who correctly ascertained the key elements needed to convert your kayak into a sailboat, would at least have a fighting chance of working your way home, against the wind as it were.

So, aside from confronting the physics of actual sailing, perhaps the real lesson here is not to doze off in your kayak, regardless of where you are. But, as always, we appreciate your jumping in to tackle the challenge, and look forward to testing your wits and wisdom with even slyer conundrums as we round the corner of this first decade of the new century.

The Winners

I know I speak for everyone here at Make: as we toot our fog horns to acknowledge the winners of this Volume 19 challenge, and wish all of you nothing but smooth sailing in the coming new year!

MakeShift Master — Most Plausible: Kieran Baack
MakeShift Master — Most Creative: John Ashford